Priest says he erred by backing McCain at pulpit, still endorses him

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- A well-known New York priest said he shouldn't have endorsed Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona for president during the invocation at a May 29 Republican dinner, but added that his only error was the setting in which he made the remarks.

Msgr. Jim Lisante told Catholic News Service June 4 that he erred in making the endorsement and criticizing presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois during the invocation at a New York State Republican Party event, but said it wouldn't be improper for him to do so away from the pulpit.

"I freely admit I'm a supporter of John McCain, mainly because of his unwavering record on pro-life issues and, as a private citizen, I not only have the right to express my point of view, (but) the greater mistake would be to remain silent," he said. "I knew some members of the Catholic Church wouldn't agree with me, but others have expressed their support."

Canon law forbids clergy from assuming "public offices which entail a participation in the exercise of civil power"; it does not prohibit clergy from endorsing candidates or political parties but an individual bishop may tell his clergy not to do so. Under Internal Revenue Service guidelines for preserving the church's tax-exempt status, members of the clergy may make endorsements if they are speaking as individuals, but not at official functions or in official publications of the church.

Recently a Chicago priest was reprimanded by his bishop for getting too closely involved in the U.S. presidential campaign.

"While a priest must speak to political issues that are also moral, he may not endorse candidates nor engage in partisan campaigning," said Cardinal Francis E. George of Chicago in a June 3 statement announcing that he had asked Father Michael Pfleger, a priest in his archdiocese, to take a leave of absence from his pastoral duties after he made disparaging remarks about Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York.

Msgr. Lisante is a priest of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y. Bishop William F. Murphy of Rockville Centre was in Rome June 4 and unavailable to comment on Msgr. Lisante's remarks during the invocation, said Sean Dolan, diocesan communications director.

"But the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' guidelines are clear that priests should not endorse candidates or political parties," Dolan told CNS. "There are pretty strong reasons why the church doesn't want their priests to become partisan."

The pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church in West Hempstead, N.Y., Msgr. Lisante is no stranger to the media spotlight.

Having written four books and contributed commentary in more than 300 newspapers, he has hosted the nationally syndicated programs "Personally Speaking" and "Christopher Close-Up," served as a religious commentator for Fox and ABC affiliates and has appeared on "Nightline" and "The Phil Donohue Show."

The invocation in which he endorsed McCain also has made its way onto the popular Web site YouTube, which shows video footage of Msgr. Lisante criticizing Obama for waiting too long to distance himself from the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the former pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, where Obama had worshipped for more than 20 years. Rev. Wright's racially divisive homilies have been publicly dissected in the past few months.

Obama formally resigned his membership in that church May 31.

"One more thing, Lord. Please tell Sen. Obama that maybe change is a good thing and maybe he should think about changing his favorite preacher," the priest said.

"I know a lot more of us would be comfortable with his judgment skills if he hadn't sat for 20 years through those words offered by his preacher of division, bigotry and, honestly, half truths without a word of objection from the senator until the media brought it up, and now he doesn't want any part of the guy. I'm willing to be his new preacher," he said.

Msgr. Lisante told CNS having his invocation posted on YouTube has been an eye-opening experience.

"I thought I was speaking to a group of like-minded Republicans, but in reality, if there is a camera in the room, you are speaking to the whole world, (to) everyone who has access to the Internet," he said. "I received hundreds of e-mails after that was posted. The lesson is that we should be cautious when we speak."

Copyright (c) 2008 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

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